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Three Things Every Author Should Know about School Visits

This many! (Fun fact: This photo shoot took A LOT longer than it should have.)

Have you ever been on the move for so long that once you finally stop moving, you don’t know what to do with yourself?

I feel that way now. For the past several weeks I had gotten into the habit of running from one place to another, talking about my book, coming home, and then collapsing in a heap. It was exhausting. It was also exciting and new and it made me feel very, very important. I really did love it. I loved it more than I thought I would.

Now that it’s all over, I’m suffering a little from promo withdrawal.

But my schedule, exciting as it was, didn’t allow me to write at all. So I am very eager to reacquaint myself with my first love. I missed writing much more than I liked feeling important.

During the tour I visited lots of schools. That is par for the course for a picture book – especially a nonfiction one. Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on those visits, I’d like to share three takeaways:

1. Kids love to take you down rabbit holes.  

During one class visit I told a group of 40 third graders that my fondest childhood Thanksgiving memory was watching Big Ape Movies on the local TV station. Every single year the station aired Mighty Joe Young, King Kong, and Son of Kong. “Six straight hours of simian mayhem!” I announced. “I have no idea what giant gorillas have to do with Thanksgiving, but, hey, who cares? It’s wonderful!”

And by opening that door, I invited in a long string of ape-related questions. Clearly I was the King Kong expert these kids had been waiting for their whole lives. “How big was he?” one asked. (I guessed about 50 feet tall.) “Did that big building get damaged bad?” (No, they just needed to patch up some bullet holes.) Would King Kong win a fight with Godzilla? (If Americans made the movie, I replied, then yes.)

It was a blast. And, because I indulged this line of questioning, the kids loved me. Oh, and my “simian mayhem” line made one teacher to do a spit take; this is perhaps my proudest achievement ever.

2. There’s one teacher in every school who assumes you don’t know what you’re doing.

This teacher is the wet blankie who tries to calm down the children after you have invested so much time and energy revving them up. Not. Cool.

This teacher is either very, very young and well-meaning or one of those old law and order types who is one year away from retirement. (Teachers with tenure and more than a few years of full time work left in them are happy to sit back, drink coffee, and let you do your thing.)

I find it important to address the interrupting teacher directly. Doing so is a bit of a tightrope walk, however, for I have to communicate two messages at the same time. My first message is for the kids: “Your teacher is the boss. Your teacher is even MY boss and it is important to always do what she says.” My second message is for the teacher and is rich with subtext: “Why don’t you follow the fine example of your peers and drink some coffee?”

At one of my recent visits, a young teacher, trying to be helpful, inserted herself into my presentation to “calm things down, a bit.”

In front of the crowd I told the teacher she made an excellent point. Then I thanked her. Then, before the teacher could say anything else, I called on an earnest little girl who  could be counted on to ask a question that was “appropriate.” As the girl asked her question, the teacher and I chatted to each other with our eyes.

“I got this,” my eyes told her.

“You sure?” her eyes asked back, concerned.

“Your coffee is getting cold,” my eyes replied. “And that chair waaaay over there looks hella comfortable.”

3. Controlling a Q&A session is a lot easier than you might think. 

Kids wear their personalities on their sleeves. Even if they say nothing, their body language makes it easy to differentiate the silly from the studious. You don’t need talent to figure out who’s who. You just need eyes. Anyone can do this. Really. Anyone.

By using this information, I became a Q&A conductor of sorts; I called on the sillies when I wanted to dial up the energy in the room and the studiers when I wanted to dial it back.

And because I love and respect teachers and don’t wanna make their jobs any more difficult than they already are, I wrapped up all my Q&A sessions by calling on three studious students in a row. You’re welcome, teachers. Here’s hoping I’ll see you again next year!